The adventure began long before I could write. I remember being no older than five, hiding under a bush in the alley behind our house, waiting for the fairies to come out. I was always making up stories about them, now I reckoned the time had come to see them for myself. But the only fairies I ever found were ones in books.
I loved books. When our local library was built, I was the first on the doorstep on opening day, having travelled across town on my little yellow scooter with a bag slung over the handlebars to carry home my loot. I didn’t come from a bookish family, but I already was making up stories in my head, and books were the places where more stories were to be found – and the library was full of books. I mightn’t have been very old, but I’d figured that one out.
Courtesy of the local library, the stories in my life began to grow. Then, a year or so later, I discovered the freedom that writing could bring. Frustrated when my favourite literary character – Winnie the Pooh – ran out of stories, I started writing my own – and was somehow persuaded to read them out in class. Their enthusiastic reception was the beginning of a long career, which has lasted to this day. From that time onwards, I knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. It was an ambition I took very serious. I’d have done anything to bring it about.
What happened next was a very long apprenticeship. Starting with Winnie the Pooh, then moving on to Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville – who wrote the fabulous Lone Pine series, set in Shropshire, about which I’d one day write myself – I worked on learning how to write a book. As I discovered authors, I tried to learn from them too. There was my Emily Bronte phase [I’d have given anything to have written Wuthering Heights], my Dylan Thomas poetry phase, my J.R.R. Tolkien phase, even my Graham Greene one, though I’d never travelled further than Brighton Rock.
But the more I wrote, the more critical I became. I didn’t just want to write; I wanted to write well, and that ambition drove me on. I couldn’t forgive myself for not being a proper, grown up, literary-sounding author and my writing was often a painful, angst-ridden experience – as befit a struggling teenager, I suppose – not the joyful one of childhood.
It took until my early twenties to write with a sense of freedom again, and rediscover the idea of it being an adventure. Despairing of ever making a mark on the literary world, I moved to a remote country cottage specifically to write. It was miles off the road with nothing to distract me – just a hillside and a stunning view. The cottage had no running water or electricity so I had to cook on its open range. I arose with the sun and went to bed with it – and in between I wrote.
This carried on for two months. What I wrote wasn’t that good, to be honest, but what was good was the sense of freedom that came to me from writing every day without distraction. This was the way I wanted to live, not agonising about writing but actually doing it. This was the way I had to live. It was the only way. At the end of two months, however, I ran out of money and had to return to the city and to work. But I’d been given a taste of what the writer’s life could possibly be.
Something else that cottage gave me was a love of the Marches region in which it was situated – a love which saw me moving to Shropshire before too long, where I still live to this day. I arrived in deepest winter, not knowing a soul. My house sale hadn’t yet gone through and I was living in a B & B. This was where the library came back into my life. Much of those first few weeks were spent in Shrewsbury Library, not just keeping warm but researching the region around my new home. There were an endless supply of books, telling me everything about my new county. But the book that stood out most of all was Charlotte Burne’s classic collection of folk stories, entitled Shropshire Folklore.
Charlotte Burne is famous as the first woman President of the Folklore Society, which was all the more remarkable as she was an outsider in what was not just a male, but a largely London, scene. But her Presidency was justly deserved. Her stories of fairies, goblins, bogeys and giants – which she collected by word of mouth during the early part of the nineteenth century – are quite remarkable. Each tale and character is fascinating, but none more than Wild Edric and his fairy wife, the Lady Godda, who are meant to sleep beneath a rugged range of hills called the Stiperstones.
My new house lay across the valley from the Stiperstones. But I didn’t think about Edric and Godda again until years later, writing what was to become my first published novel, Midnight Blue, when they came galloping through my brain demanding to be let in. You never know what will happen next when you’re writing a book. But that’s what the adventure of writing is all about.
It’s twenty-one years now since Midnight Blue was published, an event I’m celebrating this month. When I started writing it, I had five young children not yet all in school, which meant rising at 5.00am to write before they awoke. That was an adventure, I can promise you. And Midnight Blue’s being shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book Award was an adventure too – but not quite as much of one as going on to win the Smarties Grand Prix, even beating Roald Dahl.
I’ve been a published author ever since, writing novels for children and young adults. It’s an interesting, challenging, sometimes tricky, sometimes sublimely rewarding life. For weeks at a time my most significant relationship is with my computer. And yet I’ve managed to retain the sense of freedom and excitement I first felt with my own version of Winnie the Pooh.
And I do still have adventures in my writing life. I went down my first lead mine for Midnight Blue. Then, for my ‘Children of Plynlimon’ series [Sabrina Fludde, The Red Judge, Mad Dog Moonlight] I followed the three great rivers that rise on Plynlimon Mountain from source to sea. Then for Flying for Frankie I conquered my fear of heights and flew in a hot air balloon. And, most adventurous of all, for my gap year novel In the Trees, I travelled to Belize, funded by the Authors Foundation and the Arts Council, where I trekked through the jungle, met young British volunteers working wonders to help protect the rainforest, and was honoured to become a guest of the Kekchi-Mayan people.
Now I’m embarking upon a new adventure in the world of e-books, by publishing the anniversary edition of Midnight Blue myself. This is part of a whole new trend in publishing with professional authors acquiring the rights to their own work in order to bring out their e-books for themselves. It’s exciting to see books given new life – and to have it given by the author makes it all the more exciting. It’s all part of the heart-to-heart communication which takes place between an author and a reader every time a book is read.
The great American children’s writer, Katherine Paterson, talks about hearts in hiding reaching out to each other. I think she has it exactly right. A book is a partnership. The writer does their bit, but it takes the reader – each individual powered by their own imagination – to bring a book to life. And an e-book version of a novel is a whole new life; a new reading experience; a new chance to relate to and learn to love books.
Midnight Blue was first read twenty-one years ago. Now here it is again, part of something new in publishing, speaking to a whole new generation of young readers, How good is that?
Midnight Blue tells the story of Bonnie who, torn between her young mother, Maybelle, and the greedy and cruel Grandbag, is forced to flee in a hot air balloon piloted by a mysterious Shadowboy, fuelled by nothing but magic, smoke and fire.
On the other side of the sky – in a world she’s always dreamt of, never believing it could be real – Bonnie finds a new home which is a bizarre mirror image of all she’s left behind. But just as Bonnie dares believe she might be safe here, and have a better life, the cruelty of Grandbag reappears, threatening to destroy everything she’s struggled to achieve.
Unexpected help comes from Edric and Godda, the mythical and highly elusive lord and lady of Highholly Hill. But Bonnie has to face up to challenges – and make hard choices – which are hers alone.
‘As they rose, the sun rose with them as if they were racing for the top of the sky. Its warmth welcomed them, turning the dark skin of the fiery balloon a beautiful midnight blue. They flew straight up. Above them, the sweet, clear music of the lonely pipe, the only sound left in the whole world, drew them on until they prepared to hit the very roof-top of the sky itself. Then the smooth sky puckered into cloth-of-blue and drew aside for them, like curtains parting. The music called again, and they passed straight through.’